This article was originally published in Cherwell newspaper.
The boys in military uniform, the saluting, the marching. The waving of our nation’s flag as if it justifies the deaths we are here to remember. The proud brandishing of guns; the very machinery that causes the destruction we mourn over. Poppy day isn’t about remembrance, it’s about glorifying the bravado that killed, and continues to kill, many.
Remembrance services are inextricably linked to the automatic respect and glorification of the armed forces, with more time given to military parades than reflection on those who have died. Our natural human empathy towards those who have suffered from war is manipulated in order to brand our foreign policy as worthy and heroic. Of course, at times, soldiers have been vital for the protection of our country, but we must be careful that Remembrance Day avoids using past battles to justify current policy. We cannot use the fight against Nazism to achieve public justification of Britain’s part in conflicts today.
In Flanders Fields, read to schoolchildren across the country, exemplifies the propaganda we face each November. It is significant that Remembrance Day has adopted McCrae’s poem, written early in WWI before the true horrors of war were revealed, since the campaign is desperate to romanticise and glorify the grim reality of war. ‘Take up our quarrel with the foe,’ reads the poem, echoing in services across the country. If Remembrance Day truly respected those who have lost their lives in war, it would surrender this bloodthirsty rhetoric and military propaganda.
But the military propaganda isn’t limited to the annual ritual of Remembrance Day. Organisations like Help for Heroes blindly label soldiers as heroes, whilst they fight wars that public polls continually express overwhelming opposition to. How can a hero die fighting an unheroic cause? Help for Heroes aims to care for serviceman and their families, compensating for the government’s continued neglect of the armed forces. Yet these campaigns rely on nationalistic rhetoric of heroes and protectionism, in order to care for serviceman, only serving to increase public backing of otherwise unjust and unpopular conflicts.
To blindly honour any armed forces, no matter their actions or purpose, is dangerous. We need to be free to support and protect ex-serviceman without glorifying the forces that continue to cause such widespread death and destruction. Remembrance Day stops us from doing this – it ties the memory of individuals killed by war with the groups that continue to perpetuate conflicts today. On Remembrance Day we should be remembering people who have suffered, yet we allow the campaign to manipulate our empathy into something more nationalistic, antagonistic and dangerous, lending itself to xenophobia and racism. The Daily Mail recently published an article challenging Muslim women to prove their patriotism by wearing a poppy, and it is exactly this pseudo-patriotism that has no role in an event to remember those who have lost their lives.
Perhaps more important is that Remembrance Day has been hijacked by the armed forces to the exclusion of the other victims of war. The Poppy Campaign raises funds for ex-Serviceman and their families, organised by the Royal British Legion and the Haig fund. Central to this is the memory of soldiers who have died in wars past and present. Not just soldiers, but exclusively British soldiers – as if war is not an evil that affects all sides, but an evil that is unique to Britain. Innocent civilians are forgotten – no poppies are worn in their memory, no services held, no poems recited. This is especially surprising considering that over 90% of the victims of modern warfare are non-combatants. Look at the Iraq war, where the death toll of over 120,000 civilians towers above the 5,000 occupying troop who have lost their lives. Yet on Remembrance Day it is clear that we believe it is only the British soldiers who deserve our memory.
Currently all that decides if we mourn the soldiers of the two world wars is their birthplace – after all, both German and British soldiers were separated only by borders – often both conscribed, and equally disillusioned with the war they fought. Today it is bizarre that we exclusively remember those who died in British uniform – the rhetoric of ‘protecting our nation,’ seems hollow considering the public’s opposition to recent foreign policy. On the one day we set aside to reflect, we continue to cling to the tribal mentality of remembering the soldiers who died on ‘our’ side and not ‘theirs.’ Has death and destruction not taught us that it is the loss of human life which is to be mourned, not just the loss of a national?
It is for these reasons that the White Poppy campaign is growing – a symbol for the memory of all who have suffered and continue to suffer, united in the shared belief in peace. It remembers the victims of war regardless of their army, their nation or their cause, because it doesn’t have the arrogance to assume that the British cause is any better than the cause of anybody else. It remembers those who brandished guns as well as those who refused to fight. It remembers the Iraqis as well as the British soldier. In short, it remembers victims of war because they were human, not just because they were soldiers.
It’s often said that since soldiers ‘give their lives for us,’ we have a duty to participate in Remembrance Services. Yet the greatest insult to their memory isn’t to object to the ritual military propaganda of Remembrance Day, it is to ignore their experiences. To claim that their death was tragic, but not tragic enough to stop the glorification of war and start the campaign for peace. It is an insult to allow their memorial services to be hijacked by the armed forces, who continue to cause the death and destruction we mourn over. Instead we must put remembrance back at the heart of Remembrance Day, and ensure that it is a positive force for peace in the future, and not for the maintenance of militarism, chauvinism and war.